Australian International Education Conference Speech

Speech
  • Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations
  • Leader of the Government in the Senate

9.00 AM to 9.45 AM

Thank you Stephen [Connelly, DVC International and Development. RMIT].

I wish to acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of the land on which we meet—the Kaurna [gar-na] people—and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

I also extend that respect to other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who are here today.

For those of us who are passionate about international education, 2011 provides cause for a double celebration.

2011 marks a very important milestone in Australia’s social and economic history—it is 25 years since the Hawke Government opened our nation’s doors to fee-paying overseas students. 

And it's also the 25th time that the annual Australian International Education Conference has brought people together from all over the world to discuss critical issues in international education.

So it is timely that I address you today and have the chance to reflect on recent opportunities and challenges which have seen the international education sector confirm its position as one of Australia’s most important industries.

With annual revenues of more than $16 billion, international education is our nation’s third largest export.  

The sector makes a very substantial contribution to the health of our education system and is a major Australian economic and social success story.

It internationalises our cities and towns in an age of globalisation and exposes us to higher academic standards.

It forges invaluable person-to-person ties that will continue to benefit us for decades to come.

We are recognised as a world leader in international education, providing opportunities for students from more than 190 countries to take advantage of our expertise.

Indeed, we have one of the highest proportions of international students in our higher education system of any country in the world.

And we can be proud of our history when it comes to valuing the important contribution the sector has made.

Many students who studied in Australia under the Colombo Plan have gone on to achieve great things. 

And since then, others who have graduated from Australian universities are now leaders in their own countries. 

International education has played a critical role in our nation’s soft diplomacy and has arguably led Australia’s outreach to Asia.

It is not uncommon when meeting Ministerial counterparts from the Asia-Pacific region to learn that they were educated at an Australian university. 

Without exception they have fond memories of their time here and often maintain ongoing contact with university friends. 

It’s impossible to put a price on the good will and diplomatic influence that being a leader in international education has generated for our nation over the decades.

Clearly, it is in our national interest to protect and advance this tradition.

The Challenges

However, you all understand that Australian international education has faced significant challenges in recent years. 

As some education providers became increasingly reliant on income from overseas students, we saw unprecedented and, I would argue, unsustainable growth.

Between 2007 and 2009 the average annual enrolment growth was 18 per cent—driven primarily by VET sector enrolments where the annual rate of growth exceeded 45 per cent in both 2007 and 2008.

Had that trend continued, we would have seen more than one million international students studying in Australia next year.

That would have been almost 800 000 more international students than were studying in Australia just a decade ago, in 2002 – a number which is equivalent to the populations of Wollongong, Geelong, Townsville and Cairns combined.

The rapid expansion of the VET sector, in particular, was driven in large part by migration policy changes introduced by the Howard Government.

In a matter of a few years, hundreds of so-called colleges were set up across the nation purporting to offer a high quality education experience.

The reality was that while there were many good ones, many were offering purely migration outcomes rather than quality education services.

The result of this unfettered and largely unregulated growth was significant damage to Brand Australia in the international education market.

As dodgy cooking and hairdressing schools collapsed, the reputation of respected VET and higher education providers also suffered.

The record growth was also accompanied by a high-profile series of incidents of violence directed at Indian students in 2009 which adversely affected the bilateral relationship between our two countries.

In the rush to growth, the quality of the education being offered suffered, and existing systems of regulation and quality assurance were found to be wanting.

Put simply, Brand Australia was damaged.

Confronting these problems was difficult but it was essential. And to be frank, some state governments and some providers were in denial.

But over the last two years we have faced up squarely to these issues and we have made the decisions essential for reform.

Baird Review

Key to the Government’s program of reform was the work of the Baird Review of the Education Services for Overseas Students Act.

The Review identified the need to restore confidence in the sector and to remove those providers who weren’t performing.

The Government acted on the recommendations to protect the sector and to protect students.

We strengthened the registration criteria for international education providers and demanded the re-registration of providers under stronger criteria by the end of 2010.

Those who could not demonstrate – or chose not to try to demonstrate – that education was their principal purpose and that they had the capacity to deliver education services to a satisfactory standard were dropped from the register.

Some 1100 providers met the criteria for re-registration and some 200 left the sector.

Around 20 per cent of CRICOS-registered VET providers exited the system, and the number was highest in Victoria, where almost a quarter of all providers did not re-register.

We introduced a risk-managed approach to the regulation of providers and extended the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth Ombudsman to include students of private registered providers.

Importantly, we strengthened the integrity of student visas by decoupling skilled migration from international education – an important cornerstone of our reforms which remains in place today.

Last month, the Government introduced legislation to give effect to the second phase response to the Baird Review.

Central to this legislation is a single agency to safeguard the interests of students if a provider closes. It will be a one contact point for students, with one set of fees for providers, and greater accountability.

The Government has designed the new Tuition Protection Service, in keeping with the recommendations of the Baird Review, to be universal in character.

All providers who offer international education will be required to contribute in a way that reflects the underlying risk of default.

I was particularly struck when I visited China that our system of international education is perceived as a single entity.

Among the agents I spoke to, it was clear that the closure of some providers was having an adverse impact on perceptions of risk across the broader education sector, even among established, quality colleges and universities.

It’s for that reason that we have taken the view that the new Tuition Protection Service should be a single service to which all providers, public and private, VET and higher education, should be required to contribute.

Quality in international education will also be safeguarded through the establishment of national regulation and quality assurance bodies, namely the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency and the Australian Skills Quality Authority.

Let's be frank in this respect.

The previous, state-based system of quality regulation was patchy at best and ineffective at worst.

I mentioned before that the greatest rate of attrition in the compulsory re-registration process was among CRICOS-registered VET providers in Victoria.

Regrettably, Victoria was one state that continued to oppose the creation of ASQA to the death, notwithstanding the scathing assessment given by that State’s Auditor-General to its own Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority in October last year.

I’m pleased that the Commonwealth had strong support from most of the other States and Territories to create the Australian Skills Quality Authority.

While it is still early days in the life of the new national regulator, I am confident conditions are right for ASQA to do its job both fairly and well.

ASQA is explicitly adopting a risk-based approach.

While the focus is on poor performers, the regulatory burden for strong, proven providers is significantly diminished.

As a whole these reforms raise regulatory standards, focus regulatory effort on high-risk providers and reduce costs for competent providers.

Knight Review

At the same time as these measures to strengthen the integrity of our system of international education were being rolled out, education providers came under pressure from a number of sources.

They faced increased competition from countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada at the same time as the high Australian dollar made us a less attractive destination.

There was also concern that the Government’s visa settings placed us at a competitive disadvantage against other countries.

It was against this backdrop that we asked Michael Knight to conduct a comprehensive and independent review of the student visa system.

This was the first independent review of the student visa program ever conducted.

The Government decided last month to act on all 41 recommendations to increase our competitive edge and entrench Australia as a preferred destination for international students.

Central to our response is a determination to support the competitiveness and sustainability of the international education sector.

Our priority is to ensure that all institutions are competing for students on the basis of quality and are not hindered by onerous and out-of-date regulations.

In essence, the Government’s response to the Knight review moves the sector towards a new risk-based assessment system in which we measure provider risk rather than focusing solely on student risk.

Immigration will obviously continue its normal processes to ensure they are confident of the migration status of students, but the new model will allow providers to be more agile in their offerings and promote a more attractive product to those students seeking to come to Australia.

The streamlining of the visa process, the inclusion of post-study visas, the packaging of courses across institutions and the removal of English language testing requirements for stand alone ELICOS courses are all designed to offer the sector a more competitive edge.

But a word of caution to all providers. With opportunity will come responsibility.

This move to a more nuanced approach to assessing and responding to immigration risk in the Student Visa program will recognise and reward high-quality education providers. 

We know that high quality, low risk providers operate across all education sectors.

Our aim is to restore confidence in the sector and ensure students enjoy a quality education experience.

Sustained growth and continued educational quality will only be achieved if the sector remains committed to accepting responsibility for managing the risks.

The onus is very squarely on you to ensure continued confidence in Brand Australia.

International Education Advisory Council

The Government appreciates and understands the social and economic importance of the sector and is determined to ensure if continues to be competitive on the world stage.

International education is and will continue to be an important driver of Australia’s prosperity.

It is an important part of our commitment to build a world-class education system.

Since coming to office Labor has made a record investment in all levels of education – from primary schools to trade training schools, vocational education and, of course, universities.

Developing a highly skilled and educated workforce is at the very heart of the Government’s plan to build an economy that will meet the challenges of the future.

We are making record investments as a government in skills and education – it is an investment in our future prosperity as a nation and provides individuals with opportunities to realise their full potential.

And it is an investment that benefits the international education sector.

The strength of Australia’s international education offering is built on the strength of Australia’s domestic education sector.

The quality product we are able to offer international students is possible because of the quality of our domestic education institutions and the quality of the education we offer to Australians.

As educators, you are central to achieving our ambitious goal to build a skilled, highly educated workforce that will secure our future in Asia.

To help secure the future of the international education sector now is the time to develop a strategic vision for an industry which has a critical role to play in our nation’s future.

Now is the time to build a sustainable industry which is guided in its growth by solid public policy and sound planning.

An industry which enjoys high level engagement with Government and which is at the front of mind for key decision makers.

The Government wants policy making to be informed by coherent, independent, strategic advice about the future growth of the industry.

To this end, I am pleased today to announce the establishment of the International Education Advisory Council, to be chaired by a very well-known Australian, Michael Chaney, and comprising eminent people from Australia’s education and business sectors.

The Council will be charged with helping inform the Government’s development of a five year national strategy to support the quality and sustainability of the international education sector.

It will have a wide remit to provide advice and recommendations to government across the very broad spectrum of policy issues that impact on the sector.

The reality is that every day the Government is making decisions and setting policy parameters that may have a material impact on the experience of international students and the competitiveness and sustainability of high quality education providers.

Issues as diverse as:

  • The quality and breadth of our international education offering
  • Housing, employment and transport
  • Language proficiency;
  • Workforce readiness of graduates;
  • Migration and visa rules;
  • Qualifications recognition;
  • Foreign affairs relationships; and
  • The quality of students’ experiences.

It is my hope that the Council will provide a conduit to ensure the Government is appraised of the sector’s needs and challenges.

It will offer advice on issues that see public policy impact on international education.

We need a coherent, coordinated and strategic approach to developing and sustaining our education sector in an increasingly competitive international market.

I am particularly pleased that Michael Chaney has accepted the role as founding chair of the Advisory Council.

Mr Chaney brings unparalleled business experience and acumen and a practical understanding of how to grow an industry in a  highly competitive market.

As the Chancellor of the University of Western Australia, he also has a keen and first hand interest in education.

I am thrilled that he has accepted this challenge and I am pleased to say he will be supported by a council which features leading educators, the head of Boston Consulting and a former ambassador to the People’s Republic of China.

I'm also pleased that former Western Australian Premier Geoff Gallop will bring to the council's deliberations the perspective of a former State leader, and that Bruce Baird has once again agreed to contribute his substantial expertise in international education.

Student experience

Just as we want to be informed by the best expertise, it is also important that we all remember that it is the experience of the hundreds of thousands students from 190 countries who travel to our shores to study which will determine our future success.

At the recent International student roundtable in Canberra, I was reminded of just how important that experience is.

Coming from every part of the globe most of the students had left the security of family and friends behind.

Theirs is a leap of faith.

They believe in Australia to deliver what they seek—a world class education and a safe, rewarding and enjoyable experience of study.

It’s a belief shared by 85 per cent of the international students surveyed late last year who indicated they were satisfied with their living and study experiences, and with the level of support they received in Australia.

As I listened to these young people, themes emerged that all of us understand.

They wanted the processes and conditions of obtaining visas to be certain and clear.

They wanted to be part of society, to contribute; they worried about the cost of living; and they were concerned about their own safety and welfare—and that of their friends.

I told them that their concerns were our concerns.

I assured them that the Government was committed to improving the quality and integrity of the system to ensure Australia remains a great place for overseas students.

It is worth noting that the issue of transport concessions for international students always comes up in discussions with international students.

This year’s Roundtable once again called for transport concessions for international students to be made available across Australia.

From my perspective, I think that it is self-evident that it would put Australia in a much stronger position internationally if we could market the fact that all international students coming to Australia were eligible to access concessional public transport while studying here.

This has become a real sore that needs to be fixed.

Unfortunately we are being held back by Victoria and New South Wales in being able to do this.

All other states and territories have seen the benefits of extending transport concessions to international students.

It’s now time for New South Wales and Victoria to critically re-examine their opposition to providing transport concessions for international students and recognise the benefits for their own states that change would bring.

At the same time, I think it is incumbent on all providers to look at how we are ensuring that international students enjoy a quality experience while they are here – whether that’s ensuring that students have support in accessing decent accommodation, opportunities to interact and share experiences with their Australian counterparts, a capacity to add to their English language skills over the course of their studies.

Conclusion

After 25 years, International Education has well and truly come of age.

From its early tentative steps into the international market, the sector has grown into an industry which employs thousands of Australians and contributes $16 billion each year to our economy.

As a result of the significant reforms implemented in the past few years, confidence in the sector has been restored and it is now well placed to compete in the tough international market.

The Government wants to work in partnership with the sector to build on its impressive history of continued success.

The Gillard Labor Government recognises the critical contribution the International Education sector makes to our nation.

A confident and strong international education sector complements our commitment to ensuring that Australians have access to the skills and education they need to succeed in today’s economy.

To secure the future of international education in this country we must continue to be flexible and to make the changes that ensure quality in education, integrity and sustainability.

I look forward to continuing to work with you to achieve this.

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